The scariest part of healing your relationship with food is at the beginning. At the beginning, your desires may feel bottomless.
They sure did for me.
Maybe I just like sugar too much, I worried. If I let myself eat pie when I want to eat pie, why would I ever stop?
But once I actually legalized all foods — bringing them into my house and letting myself eat them, while listening to feedback from my body — I began to slowly realize that these desires weren’t bottomless. It turned out that there were lots of good reasons to stop eating pie.
And, though I did consumer a lot of Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups from fall 2010 through summer 2011, more nourishing foods gradually took up a larger and larger portion of my diet.
I find that this adjustment period occurs for most people. Most of us have spent years or decades trying to eat less ice cream and fewer onion rings. So if someone tells us that we’re allowed to eat ice cream and onion rings…well, sign us up!
I’m here to say that this heightened-junk-food-interest is pretty normal, in my experience. Most people who stop restricting themselves find that, in the short-to-medium term, they have over-inflated interest in indulgent food.
It makes some logical sense, too. If you don’t sleep enough for a long period of time, you’ll sleep a lot when you finally get the chance.
If you deprive yourself pleasurable foods for a long period of time, you’ll eat those foods a lot when you finally get the chance.
So I’ll say it again: a particularly intense interest in indulgent food often occurs when we start to release a previously restrictive relationship with food.
Because this is often at the beginning of our journey towards, it can be scary. I wanted to share a couple of things that can make this less frightening:
1. Resist the tendency to extrapolate.
Just because you want a lot of cookies for lunch today doesn’t mean that you are going to eat cookies for every meal for the rest of your life. If you notice yourself panicking about an intense craving for sugar, try to just focus on listening to your true desires in this moment, and responding to them. Then do it again the next time you eat.
2. Use solid eating skills.
“Legalize all foods and listen to yourself about what you truly want” is not the same as “please go on an unlimited binge.” I mean, you can overeat or binge whenever you feel like it, but most of the time, most of us will feel better in our bodies and enjoy the food we eat more if we try to eat when we are hungry, stop when we’re full, check in with ourselves about what we’re truly craving, and pay attention to our food.
3. Security blankets are legit.
For the first year after I stopped trying to control my eating, I kept some chocolate or a cookie in my purse wherever I went. That’s not a joke, though my boyfriend at the time did make fun of me for pulling out a fancy chocolate bar in the middle of a subway station and offering him a bite.
Having something delicious always available took away the fear of being deprived later. I could turn down those just-okay cookies at a catered work lunch, for example, because I knew I had something genuinely delicious in my purse whenever I wanted it.
4. Notice your "shoulds"
Do you have an opinion about how long this phase "should" last? Some people are okay with craving more indulgent foods for a week or two, but think that after that, it should go away.
I just want to emphasize that everyone's process is different and will depend on your personal preferences and history with food. I've seen some folks find their equilibrium after a relatively short amount of time, while other folks took a longer amount of time. Personally, I was definitely eating a lot more indulgently for at least 9 months to maybe a year. But I listened to my hunger and fullness, paid attention to my food, and adjusted based on the signals from my body (e.g., sometimes, even in a more indulgent phase, your body gives you a clear signal that it's had enough of chocolate. It's a good idea to listen.)
It may be wise to question your ideas about "how this process should go." Can you let go of that idea for a little bit, and instead pay attention to what's already happening for you?
5. Make sure that you are regularly checking in with your inner landscape.
There are many, many factors that are likely influencing your eating, so you need some way of figuring out what’s going on for you, on a day-to-day basis — so you don’t find yourself eating food you don’t actually want. Journaling can be great for this. Sitting and doing nothing can be great for this. You could work with a therapist or a coach. In the Dessert Club we talk about a couple of different ways of getting in touch with your inner experience.
But whatever you choose, you’ve gotta do it. We cannot resolve our eating issues if we are not in touch with our personal issues. Period.
Of course, this is not to say that you will be uninterested in pie and onion rings once you pass the "scary beginning." I certainly still love indulgent food!
But for many or even most people, that interest seems to calm down a bit, and we reach a personal equilibrium.
If you are feeling scared about the idea of letting your guard down around food, I hope this helps.
And please know, it’s not just you. You’re not alone. And you’ve got this.